In a few weeks’ time we shall behold the ‘glorious’ spectacle of red painted Metro Buses plying their way between Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Many of us will utter ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ and like one of my readers from across the borders, say that unnecessary criticism of this Mass Transit System was unwarranted as so and so Metro in so and so city was running smoothly, profitably and to full capacity.

Notwithstanding all of the above, I would have been happiest if the funds spent in laying out this ‘red route’ would have gone into education, healthcare and law enforcement, but now that the ‘deed has been done’, I can do nothing but twiddle my thumbs and hope that the project does not become another liability for the tax payer.

The tandem buses (for the Metro Bus is nothing more than two vehicles joined together by a flexible concertina like material) are a common sight in many European cities, where they move on normal roads as part of traffic. I would have been aesthetically satisfied (and perhaps even excited) as a quarter century old resident of the Federal Capital, to see trams running on the route instead of red buses. These trams would have provided a classic blend to the beauty that is Islamabad and as a spin off added a tourist attraction to the city. I say so because I have hopped ‘street cars’ in Amsterdam and Frankfurt, which was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

The subject of trams brings to mind the state of our railway system. Trains have always been a cheap and (for some people) exciting mode of intercity travel. I have had the privilege of travelling on Pakistani trains when the system was known as NWR or North Western Railway. Ironically enough, the US donated diesel locomotives running on the main lines and the old steam workhorses connecting smaller towns, always ran on time. The Rawalpindi – Karachi section had an on board dining facility in the shape of a Dining Car, which served excellent breakfast, lunch and dinner in a restaurant style environment. One even had room service, where a cleanly clad turbaned ‘bearer’ brought sustenance to your compartment.

Then the railway became politicized starting from the first PPP Government of Mr. Bhutto, as thousands of political workers (both skilled and unskilled) were inducted into various departments. This lent strength to the Unions, which began to undermine authority. As discipline and dedication deteriorated, so did service and technical efficiency, till our railway network, renamed as PWR (Pakistan Western Railway) and finally PR (Pakistan Railway), became a nightmare.

The story of the rise and fall of our train system is a sordid saga laced with politics, corruption and professional apathy. There was a brief period in General Musharraf’s time, when under Mr. Javed Ashraf Qazi (ex-soldier turned Railway Minister), the Pakistan Railway appeared to be undergoing a turnaround, but it was short lived. The situation as it stands today is nothing short of catastrophic. Overstaffing and heavy financial losses have rendered this essential public facility into a huge liability. The end result is a loss of credibility as engines breakdowns occur regularly and ‘power’ has to be switched from one place to the other causing long delays and inconvenience to passengers. The dining car facilities do not exist anymore (except in the newly launched business train) and the quality of food served by the contractor is abominable and unhygienic.

There are a few critical indicators that showcase countries and build up their image in the eyes of the world. One of these is the transportation system i.e. national airline, mass transit facilities, roads and trains. Thanks to political exploitation, greed and corruption, our national airline is only a shadow of what it once was; our mass transit planners are infected with Metro Bus mania; our roads (except a pitiable few) are a driver’s nemesis and our trains – the less said, the better.